The Use of Plain Language in Medicine: Lay Terminology and Health Literacy
Updated: Jun 24
With the unprecedented advancement of technologies in all industries and professional fields, every profession has come to use its own technical or specialized language. Sharing such an “insider language” allows professionals to efficiently communicate with each other, and medicine is no exception. In fact, learning medical terminology requires almost as much effort and time as honing practical clinical skills.
On the other hand, every profession has to learn how to communicate with “outsiders”: people from other professions, government officials, and ordinary folks (e.g., patients, readers of popular scientific publications, audience of medical shows, etc.). When it comes to health care professionals, effective communication is not simply a matter of outreach but an urgent and, at times, even life-and-death requirement.
Medical terminology is complicated, which may be problematic for patients who need to understand how to use their medications or which instructions to follow. Medical professionals must be able to rephrase the difficult terms or explain them to their patients using a lay or plain language.
Similarly, medical writers and translators specializing in medical, pharmaceutical, and life science translation must be skilled in distinguishing and representing the style- and register-related textual and vocabulary differences.
Insider vs. Outsider Languages
Linguistics often distinguish among several major writing styles or genres: fiction and poetry, non-fiction and journalism, science and technical style, and academic style. Medical writing may be presented in any of these styles; however, the most common ones are technical (pharmaceutical reports, data sheets, medical device manuals, etc.), academic (peer review studies, scientific articles, pharmacovigilance communication, etc.) and non-fiction (popular science publications, news, etc.) styles.
In addition to styles and genres, another filter applied to the medical text is the level of formality (register): informal (casual) register vs. formal register. Formal register is often used when preparing specialist- or clinician-facing (“insider”) documents, which rely on precision and accuracy of the facts and data presented. Therefore, the readability of such material becomes secondary to the appropriateness of the technical terms and industry jargon used.
On the other hand, the tone of patient-facing (“outsider”) documents (informed consent forms, patient recruitment materials, etc.) is often described as casual, informal, or patient-friendly. The readability of such documents becomes the priority. They must be easily understood by general population, expressed in shorter, and less complex sentences, with lay, non-expert terminology replacing any specialist terms and technical jargon.
As it happens, most medical terms in English have equivalents in lay language, and any healthcare professional, medical writer or translator should be able to switch, depending on the audience and the purpose of communication, from technical to lay terms and from formal to casual style and register.
Lay terminology and language helps:
Present medical content in a reader-friendly style, suitable for poplar science and other publications.
Rephrase medical information using plain English to enhance doctor-patient communication.
Interpret what patients say in medical jargon for specialist-facing records.
Maintain compassionate patient communication by providing euphemistic alternatives.
Inform and empower patients, allowing them to take control of their own health care decisions.
In addition to acronyms, trade names, and eponyms, contemporary medical language employs the corpus of Greek and Latin terminology, which has shaped the medical, and overall scientific, writing for the past 2,000 years. In fact, medical terminology across languages seems to share Latin and Greek influences in the linguistic processes of affixation (e.g., dermat-itis, dermato-logic-al), word compounding (e.g., carcin-o-genic, retin-o-blastoma), and the doublet phenomenon.
The doublet phenomenon refers to the pairs (“doublets”) of words of different origins that are used in different registers (formal vs. informal), e.g., begin ➝ initiate, search ➝ investigate, swelling ➝ edema, shot ➝ injection, heart attack ➝ myocardial infarction. As with other languages, in English, terms of Greek and Latin origin have their Anglo-Saxon counterparts in the general language.
The doublet phenomenon can be observed through the association of noun vs. adjective roots (see Table 1 below). This particular linguistic feature is of a great importance in writing or translating information materials for lay readers.
Table 1. Doublet phenomenon as observed through the association of noun vs. adjective roots
To learn about the ways most medical terms are constructed and the Greek and Latin origins of contemporary medical terminology, read my blog post Medical Terminology: Greek and Latin Origins and Word Formation Guidelines.
Medicine in Lay Terms
Below is a short glossary of common medical terms and their suggested equivalents using the lay (plain) language. I have used the recommendations from the Plain English Campaign and the MHRA Report of the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CMS) Working Group on Patient Information.
Table 2. Common medical terms described in lay language
When a Patient Says…
Knowing lay expressions can also help physicians understand their patients when the patients describe their symptoms during doctor’s visits or hospital admissions. Below is another brief list of common patient complaints and the medical conditions such complaints may point to:
Table 3. Correlation between common patient complaints and medical conditions
Lay Terminology and Health Literacy
Health communication based on an accessible, patient-friendly language is not simply a matter of convenience; it is in fact an important ethical concept within the larger modern ethics of health literacy and patient-empowerment in the Western world.
In keeping with the democratic ethos of the liberal culture, patient-centered communication fosters a holistic view of patients in health care professionals, requiring them to heed to patients’ needs and wishes by including them in their medical care plans.
Attention to the individual is especially paramount in the era marked by both the personalization and the automation of health care. Health care training must include the interpersonal and attitudinal dimensions of medicine and proper study of how emotion and empathy in communication with patients affect their health. For words do not only carry medical information; they are also capable of triggering emotions, which, if properly attended to, can and will contribute to the ultimate well-being of the patient.